It is budget season in New York State and the annual game of determining the amount of state aid each of the 674 school districts will receive is in full swing. Every district and its legislators will fervently argue that more school aid is needed, that its schools are underfunded, and that its students will suffer serious harm if more money isn’t devoted to them as soon as possible. But in fact, the vast majority of New York’s schools are generously funded, while our results in terms of achievement are only mediocre. Instead of targeting additional aid to the few truly needy districts, all are given more.
As is the case in most states, New York public schools are primarily a local responsibility. Each school district runs its own schools, has its own contract with the teachers union, and relies on local property taxes to fund a large part of its costs. State school aid is meant to supplement the local tax contribution so that children in ‘low wealth’ districts are not denied the ‘sound basic education’ guaranteed by the State Constitution.
Each year a chorus of school advocates including the teachers union, school administrators, and state legislators argue for more state school aid. Whatever increase the Governor proposes is inevitably denounced as too little. The higher amount recommended by the State Education Department (SED) (controlled not by the Governor but by the Legislature via the State Board of Regents) is also decried as too low. Inevitably, some compromise amount is set in the state budget that is always a significant increase over the prior year.
The total amount of legislatively-approved school aid statewide rose 32% percent over the ten years between 2006 and 2017 and totaled more than $28 billion in fiscal year 2018, the largest expense in the state’s operating funds budget. Combined with local allocations, New York State school districts now spend a whopping $69 billion a year, an average of more than $25,000 per student, by far the highest amount in the country.
The game in its current form has been played since 2011, following the recession of 2008 when across-the-board school-aid cuts were imposed, when the Governor and the Legislature agreed to an annual ‘cap’ on the growth of school aid tied to growth in personal income and used a ‘foundation formula’ to determine the amount of aid each district would get, based on its number of poor students, English language learners, students with disabilities, regional cost differences, property values, and wealthy residents.
But the cap has never really been adhered to, and the results of the foundation formula are undermined through the addition of other kinds of aid (e.g. transportation, high tax aid) and foundation aid ‘hold harmless’ provisions ensuring that no district ever loses aid and indeed, that all get at least some increase each year no matter what they spend.
Why does this game go on? First, school aid is the primary vehicle for state legislators to ‘bring home the bacon’ and demonstrate effectiveness to their voters. The wealthiest school districts are in suburban areas where residents have shown the value they attach to top quality schools by paying very high property taxes. Even though these districts are already spending outsized amounts per pupil on their schools, they want more and their representatives need to get it for them. The Governor needs the support of these legislators for other parts of his agenda, so he is loath to disappoint them.
Second, public education advocates continue to make the argument that there are unmet school needs as revealed by the shortfall between aid amounts and what would have been provided under the foundation formula had it continued to be applied as approved in a lawsuit filed by a consortium known as the Campaign for Fiscal Equity (CFE).
The lawsuit ended in a settlement in 2007, and, while clearly articulating the right of all children in New York to free quality education, did not legally require implementation of its calculations of optimum aid. The Governor has called the CFE aid formula a ‘ghost of the past’ but the state teachers union and an alliance of other advocacy groups continue to insist that there is a shortfall of at least $4 billion in state school aid.
It is true that some school districts are underfunded and should receive more state aid to make up for their high number of poor students and their low property tax wealth. But there are less than 35 districts in this category and their unmet needs total less than $200 million. This shortfall could easily be filled by re-allocating a small part of the money that is going to school districts that do not need it; they are already spending far more than enough.
The 62 wealthiest districts in New York are receiving almost $5,000 a year in state school aid and are spending an average of $30,500 per student per year. The 68 poorest districts are getting much more aid – an average of $15,700 per student – but because they don’t have sufficient local resources, they can spend only $22,000 per student per year. There is no educational reason to give the wealthier districts any aid, and certainly no more than they are getting.
Surely, everyone involved in setting school aid amounts knows this. But the CFE advocates don’t want to alienate a large of portion of their support from the wealthy districts by arguing only for targeted aid increases and the legislative representatives of the well-funded school districts are certainly not going to kill the golden goose. So we continue with a charade of hand-wringing about the need for more school funding state-wide.
This year Governor Cuomo has proposed almost $1 billion in additional aid, SED wants more than $2 billion more, and the CFE groups are still demanding $4 billion. The reality is there is no justification for more state school aid, it just needs to be re-allocated and targeted to the specific districts that are actually needy. But more school aid there surely will be. This is especially infuriating when the Governor is proposing to reduce spending on Medicaid to address an expected $2.3 billion revenue shortfall in the next fiscal year.
In his second State of the State address, in 2012, Governor Cuomo complained that all the adults in the public school system have lobbyists pressing for more spending and that he would now be the students’ lobbyist. But over time, he has made compromises with the political realities; while his school aid proposals are accompanied by rhetorical acknowledgement of the need for better targeting, the chorus of calls for everyone everywhere in the state to receive more school funding continues. It is well past time for this charade to end.
Carol Kellermann was president of Citizens Budget Commission from 2008 through 2018.
This story was originally published on March 4, 2019 by Gotham Gazette.